Small Mouth: Big Appetite – A Closer Look at Boca Chica, Dominican Republic
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
― Mark Twain, Mark Twain: The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It
I know I spend a lot of time talking about fashion but when I started this blog I also wanted to cover the people and places few rarely meet or see when traveling. A kind of behind the scenes, honest look at the world we currently live in while withholding personal judgment if possible. I have been fortunate to spend the last several years traveling and have enjoyed every moment of it. Even when situations are not ideal or sometimes down right dangerous I always come away with an important lesson; a deeper understanding of the people/community/city/country. So this is my first real post looking at a particular local.
As many of you know I spent two and a half weeks split between Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. My parents retired a couple of years ago and now spend their time sailing around so I joined them in the Caribbean. Flying into Dominican Republic at 3am I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. My first impression was – well underwhelming. The tour books promised sunshine, palm trees, smiling people, and fresh coconut water. While the books weren’t entirely wrong they always leave out what life is like off the resorts. Driving the 15 minutes from the airport to the Marina, where I was staying, even in the early morning hours revealed an area of the country that was incredibly impoverished – houses built of corrugated steel, dirt roads, guns everywhere, general lack of infrastructure, and prostitution all out in the open. Let’s just say I was happy to get to the Marina but also looking forward to exploring further.
The Marina I stayed at was Zar Par just down the road from Boca Chica town and beach, which, was connected; after passing through a security checkpoint to the Marina, by a coral path along the water. The path was filled with adorable yet dilapidated tables, chairs and palm umbrellas. I would have been tempted to sit down and enjoy the view but hustling of tourists along this path was some of the most intense I had ever seen. I expected to pay for the privilege to sit in one of these chairs but obviously being a tourist marked me as someone to potentially steal from. A further note on that path and the area in general: the Dock Master of Marina Zar Par had strongly warned me not to walk alone, not to show any valuables, and to never-ever walk at night. While I chose to follow his caution my parents and friends decided to walk to dinner late one afternoon only to return, as it got dark. Taking the path along the beach there are no lights and next thing they heard was a motorcycle pull up alongside them. The military police stopped them and tried fanatically to explain not to walk ahead and turn back. Not understanding any Spanish my parents and friends had no idea what was going on until, the MP officer made the symbol of a gun, pointed down the path, and then said Bang Bang! Point made. They turned around and took the much longer and equally hazardous road home. It was my impression that crime against tourists is not conducted during the daylight but if opportunity presents itself, under the cover of night, why not try to get away with it?
The path between the Marina and Boca Chica beach also had other unique characteristics. Small shacks sat up on the hill (I think this is where you had to pay to sit at a table). Some of them, I think although I am not certain, served as prostitution houses. While it wasn’t exactly advertized, prostitution was everywhere. Mostly, observing much older white males with very young black women often accompanied by an older woman. What struck me odd about one of the shacks on the path was the name “La Romance”. It seemed a little too obvious with a middle-aged man sitting on what I suppose was a porch while a couple of women of all ages stood at the entrance; a couple with babies on their hips. A little later in my trip I noticed the Military Police conducting a search of this building. I don’t know the outcome as it definitely wasn’t smart to hang around and watch.
Downtown Boca Chica presented some interesting studies. In general the locals wanted and often asked you to take their pictures. While they didn’t ask for money I suspected they may have wanted some – I didn’t oblige. The food stalls smelled amazing but the lack of sanitary conditions left me hungry. Boca Chica beach was quite another thing: prepared to be hassled and hustled! The water was amazing but I later learned the locals say the water makes you itch from all the trash and who knows what else that stays in the stagnant reef area. Twice we saw a condom and human waste floating around. Walking onto the beach you are immediately descended upon by locals whom I think work at the local business around. Did I want a chair? To order lunch? Why couldn’t I just walk on the beach? In half English, half Spanish I learned I must get a chair which would cost me nothing. So I got a chair and sat on the beach for some time being asked if I wanted a foot massage, a blow-up water float, necklaces, artwork… it just kept going and while incredibly interesting to observe took away from any relaxation I had planned. When I left the beach things really got interesting. I was asked for money for the chair. Wait, I thought the chair was free. No, the chair was free if I ordered lunch and like I mentioned earlier there was no way that was happening. After a few words back and forth I walked away without paying. I’m not sure who was right, if it was a hustle or a mere misunderstanding but either way I felt uneasy about the situation. That was the first and last time I went to Boca Chica beach but I did go back into the center a couple of times.
Now, it’s not all bad. Everyone I got to know – mostly the guards, boat boys and staff at Marina Zar Par were sincerely nice and patient with my attempts to learn and speak Spanish. I drove by several shops on my way to Santo Domingo that I would have loved to explore. Not trinkets but stores where people made chairs by hand, molded cement decorations, wove straw hats, and huge stone yards. I wanted to visit these places and get to know the people who labored. But, due to the lack of transportation, translator and a local who could successfully navigate me through some of the dangers of the town I wasn’t able.
If you could look past the apparent poverty, trash, and questionable situations, Boca Chica has a lot of charm. As I already mentioned in general the people are incredibly warm and welcoming, the views are stunning from the color of the water to the uniquely painted houses, and even the ruble of what once was an old fishing village is aesthetically beautiful. The ear splitting music (I mean about six enormous speakers in the back of pick-up trucks from about 5-8 different cars) begins to wear you down into actually liking the music. I got hooked on two different songs that have now become part of my playlist. The beach which during the day is host to lots of laughing children and families gathering and cooking together transforms in the early morning hours and gives way to locals sweeping up the trash, men blowing up their water floats to sell for the day, and baptisms. It is a sensory overload that I don’t think should be missed even if you only have a few hours.
Would I go again? Absolutely! I like stepping outside my comfort zone and wouldn’t want to stay on a resort. I want to meet more people, understand how the community works, why it operates the way it does, and understand some of the things I saw as dangerous: are they really dangerous or is it my misunderstanding? I want to take a closer look at the numerous bribes that seem part of the culture in order to get anything done and I want to find a cleaner beach. I met some wonderful people and wouldn’t hesitate to go back! Now, I know not everyone wants to be that adventurous and if looking for a resort area where one doesn’t have to wonder if they are safe or not I would recommend the Punta Cana area. It looks wonderful, and while I was not able to get there this time, provides some of the best beaches and amenities on the island.
I hope this post didn’t scare you away from traveling! I think the point of travel is not only to uncover something about the place you are visiting but also about yourself and to push the boundaries of comfortable.